Today’s contribution is by a dear friend and an excellent blogger, Marian from Different Thoughts.
Not a recovery story
by Marian B. Goldstein, marian.bgst(at)gmail.com
To recover: “to regain a normal position or condition (as of health)” – from the Merriam-Webster
“To regain a normal or usual condition, as of health.” – Free Online Dictionary
“I’m not back to where I was before,” I once wrote/said to my therapist, who used to ask me: “How many per cent?” Fancy: “How many per cent?”! Well, she’s, also, a CBT-therapist, and somehow this question for per cent sums up the very essence of CBT-philosophy, doesn’t it?
I don’t have a lot of memories of “before”. What I have are stills, and sound bits. Of marbles rolling in the sand. Of a street light right outside the window, milky white light, a verdigris green sphere on top of it. Of distant ship sirens at night. Of endless silvery-grey tidal areas. Of the salty wind with a taste of ship-paint and oil, and of coffee being roasted. Of a bower of elder trees, and of a 350-year-old beech tree.
All that in a colorless, soundless void. Small traces of I scattered in a huge nothingness.
My first more coherent recollection of life events dates back to when I was about 13 years old. What I do remember, clearly, is reading the Swedish author Göran Tunström’s autobiography Prästungen back in the 1990ies. Tunström’s autobiography partly consists of a very detailed account of his early childhood, and I wondered how the heck the guy could remember things so clearly, while all I was able to uncover on my own quest for my childhood was this huge void, with its few stills and sound bits, stills and sound bits from a movie I hadn’t seen.
Here’s the plot, according to photographs, papers, and what I’ve been told: I was born one summer Sunday, the hottest day of that year, it turned out to be, in Bremen, Germany. My father had a career as a Hanseatic merchant and ship-owner. My mother came from the middle-class of another Hanseatic city: Stettin. She basically grew up without her father, with her parents having had a divorce when she was only three years old. She was trained as a bank clerk, social worker and solicitor’s clerk. After WWII, she found herself in the former GDR where she left for West-Germany in the 1950ies, a political refugee. She was employed at the Senate of Bremen when I was born, but quit her job when I was about a year old, dedicating herself entirely to the practice of domestic sciences.
A large house with garden in a residential neighborhood, nice cloths, good food, piano lessons, riding lessons… Yeah, I had everything. At least, what more could you possibly wish for?
As a college student in Munich in the early 1980ies, I once went to see an analyst. Some friends of the woman at whose apartment I’d rented a room had suggested, I’d do “something”, since I seemed to “have problems”. One of these friends knew the analyst.
Amnesia or not, I’ll never forget that, well, encounter. To be honest, this woman had already scared me quite a bit on the phone, when I first called her to make an appointment. I’m somewhat sensitive to people’s aura. Even if I only talk with them on the phone. I smell a rat, instantly, if there is one. Here I smelled a great big one.
She didn’t waste any time. Right to the nub of the matter: “You’re expected to keep a dream-diary. And don’t try and tell me, you didn’t dream! [I haven't said anything, have I? But, frankly, what makes you think, I'd tell anyone as ruthless as you are my dreams?]” and: “The first three times you may sit in that chair. [Wow, so kind of you, thanks!] After that, it’s the couch. [Uhm, probably there won't even be as much as one other time. Not to mention three.]” It’s not that I didn’t know, the dream thing, the couch. It’s just that it’s a huge difference whether you read or hear about it, or whether you face it for real. Especially when the analyst turns out to be an intrusive, disrespectful and insensitive asshole, who tries to steamroll you the minute you walk through her door.
Of course, she also asked me some questions about my parents. Did they love each other, were they happy? How would I know, I’d never caught them in the act. Did they often have conversations? No, not really. They didn’t exactly overdo it. Had there been violence in our home? Did my parents fight, argue a lot? No. “So, then things got more like brushed under the rug, maybe?” “You might say so.” Indeed, in hindsight it was a miracle that we still could move about in the house without knocking our heads against the ceiling constantly, with all that got brushed under the Hamedans and Tabrizes. “Hm,” she said, “sounds to me like a rather unloving atmosphere.”
What I don’t recall is how I got out of that place. Only that I sat the remaining time half paralyzed, trying to get in control of that echo in the back of my mind, that for the occasion had turned up its volume, yelling at me to get the hell out of there, NOW! And that was nothing compared to what happened the minute I found myself out in the street again. All hell broke loose, and it took me about a fortnight to regain control. No need to mention that I never went to see the analyst again.
A note to all professionals: stop telling people who or what they are! It’s the dumbest thing to do if you want someone to trust you. It’s not your job to tell people who or what they are. It’s not your job to define others, their being in this world. So, cut it out! And, indeed, that includes labelling people: “Once you label me you negate me.” Kierkegaard, exactly.
Love and drama
I’ve no idea why those two people married each other. My parents, that is. One thing’s for sure: it wasn’t out of love. In the real sense of the word, I mean. Probably, my father was looking for someone to iron his shirts for him, and my mother, and this is a rather sure thing, was looking for someone to satisfy her insatiable need to be needed.
When my father, after four years of marriage, turned out unwilling to provide unlimited devotion to her needs – to be needed to iron some shirts didn’t quite meet her needs – she had me.
My therapist once asked me, whether I believed, my mother had loved me. Fishing for maybe just a trace of the forgiveness, she at one of the first sessions had said, she didn’t expect me to ever be neither willing nor able to show. I got angry, very angry, and I answered, that since love to me meant accepting the other as the other s/he is, no, my mother hadn’t loved me. “Well, if you look at it that way…” Yes. I do look at it that way. My mother didn’t love me. She needed me. She needed a mirror to tell her how adorable she was. The perfect wife and mother, who never made a mistake.
The thing is, that beyond the surface of perfection there was basically – nothing. So, the mirror reflected basically nothing. It was empty. The void.
The perfect surface started to crack when I was about 13. My father saw another woman. The secretary, yup, who else. Though not his own. Not entirely the cliché. Well, and my mother found out. A snip of paper with her phone number in his jacket’s pocket. She found it when she emptied the pockets before sending the suit to the cleaner’s. Entirely the cliché. She made a scene, he didn’t. How I wished, he had! He stopped seeing the other woman. For a while. Then he saw her again. My mother found out, made a scene… On, off. For four years. Once he actually moved out. He wrote me a letter, asking me to forgive him. Not a nasty word about my mother. My mother read the letter before she gave it to me. But well, she read all my letters before she gave them to me. Just as she read my diary, when she found it. “But honey, I’m your mother! You don’t tell me, you’ve got secrets from your mother?!” Nah, of course not!
Well, only three days later my father moved back in, after my perfect mother had thought out the perfect conspiracy, and told him I missed him so much I was sick, literally sick. A big fat lie. I adored that man, whom I never came to really know other than through my mother’s testimonies which portrayed him as someone who was good at one thing: making money. While he, according to her, was a complete failure personally. A selfish, ungrateful, reckless and flawed character, whom to marry had ruined her life. She stood like an unsurmountable barrier between him and me.
He’d made a few half-hearted attempts over time to stop my mother from badgering me. To no prevail. She always had had the final word. With him living somewhere else, I saw a chance for my own escape. I’d made him a symbol of my own freedom. The prince on the white horse, or on the white ship, to come and rescue me from the dragon.
Reefer vessels are white. To reflect the heat of the sun. And they’re fast going. The M/S “Bremerhaven” was launched from Drammen Slip & Verksted, Norway, on Friday, March 14th 1975. Speed: 24 kts. Clipper class. The fastest reefer at the time. Sold for scrap in 1999.
They’d talked divorce. “Now that you’re not a toddler anymore, they’ll ask you at whose place you’d prefer to live. What will you say?” There I was, knowing the answer very well, but how could I tell her? Somehow, my usual “I don’t know” wasn’t even an option here. The rabbit facing the snake. After a short silence, she saved the situation, so to speak, answering herself: “Oh, you don’t need to say anything. I know. But, mind my words! If you think, your father wants you to live with him, if you think, your father gives a damn about you, you’re dead wrong. You’d be nothing but a burden to him.” No, in fact, I never needed to say anything. She did all the talking for me. No chance to get a word in edgeways.
About a year later, I’d just become 17, my father died. While I listened to Genesis’ latest release, …And Then There Were Three…, the last of their albums worth listening to, with “Follow You, Follow Me” definitely marking the irrevocable decline into commercialism, the ship disappeared beyond the horizon.
I’d always felt like an onlooker, slightly misplaced in the world, not one of them. I’d tried though. Now I came to the conclusion that it was no longer worthwhile. It was a lousy movie, and I certainly wanted no part in it. It was easy enough. I was in high school, had lots of homework to do. Truth is, I didn’t do any of my homework. I didn’t even attend school. Basically not for half a year. I spent my days at the stable, going for a hack, reading, listening to music, writing stuff, staring into space… They threatened to expel me when they found out. I had to appear before a tribunal of all of my teachers. “Why did you do this?” “I don’t know.” “Will you do it again?” What did they expect me to say?! ‘Yes sure’?? Bastards! To make the travesty complete, one of the bastards was a frigging psychologist. I got a written reprimand. I still have it. One day, I’ll maybe frame it, hang it on the wall: “Look, my diploma for being creatively maladjusted!” And maybe I could ask my therapist for a copy of my chart to hang it right next to the reprimand. It would make a perfect match.
One Saturday, my mother was on a weekend trip, I nicked the valiums she kept in her bedside table. It wasn’t premeditated or anything. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was doing. It didn’t even feel like me doing it. But, well, nothing ever really felt like me doing it. There weren’t enough of them, the valiums. I woke up Sunday evening with the mother of all hangovers.
About a fortnight later, my mother noticed that the valiums were gone. I told her what had become of them. “Why did you do this?” “I don’t know.” “Will you do it again?” “Nnnahhh.” Déjà vu. Although, I didn’t get a written reprimand from her. The incident was never mentioned again. It wasn’t a suicide attempt. The Beretta was lying right next to the valiums. With more than one cartridge. Certainly enough.
Somehow I made it through high school, and off I went to college 500 miles away. I really thought, the geographic distance would change everything. It didn’t. I spent my days at the movies, instead of at the stable, the nights at someone’s kitchen table, discussing everything from the Cold War, Jung and ashrams to Adorno, Women’s Lib and suicide. I once had an argument about that matter with some student of psychology. “Well,” I said, “I think it’s everybody’s right to choose by themselves whether they want to off themselves or not.” He went right through the roof: “That’s insane! Someone who believes that ought to be locked up!” Today, he probably does lock people up for believing in self-determination.
I spent ten years at Munich, studying theatre theory, English, French, philosophy and Scandinavian literature. Twice, I started to write a thesis. Theatre theory and Scandinavian literature. Neither time I was able to accomplish it. The rabbit facing the snake. Instead, after I’d tried the second time, in Scandinavian literature, I grabbed the opportunity when I was offered a scholarship for Odense, Denmark, in 1989. I really thought the language barrier in addition to the geographic distance would change everything. It didn’t. At least not necessarily to the better.
My first year in Denmark went all right. Then the echo in the back of my mind intensified, urging me to off myself. I started to seriously doubt that I was a human being. “Swish swish the forest fairy,” my father had used to say to hurry me up. maybe I really was a forest fairy? Maybe I barely was the swish? I saw things others didn’t see. It became all a bit scary, and I hit the panic button a few times. Still, I managed to keep it somewhat together. Thanks also to a friend, whom I could tell most of what was going on. I’ve always been lucky in that regard. I’ve always had friends whom I could tell the weirdest stuff. It never occurred to any of them to call 911, take me for a ride to the nearest ER, or something along those lines. While having such friends certainly did its share towards keeping things at least somewhat under control. The worst that ever happened was that a guy whom I’d just met witnessed me panic and get slightly deranged. He ran for life.
Well, and then my mother died. In an act of liberation I had defied her wish, or, well, her order to come home for X-mas, and spent it with my friend in Norway. U_n_p_r_e_c_e_d_e_n_t_e_d. I came home on Boxing Day. Ready to have it out with her. Not only the X-mas matter. Everything.
Ah, those friends of mine and their bad influence on me, asking me to defy my mother, the only person in the whole wide world I could trust! But, of course, I was my father’s daughter, selfish, ungrateful, reckless, a flawed character. What had she done wrong to deserve this?! What had become of her nice little girl whom she’d done everything to raise to be an organized person?! The entire sermon. As usual. As heard uncountable times before, with variations: “You can’t get anything right, can you?” “Where would you be without me!” “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you weren’t quite right in the head.”
Yeah, she knew very well. She’d regularly threatened to put me away. At first it was boarding school, while I was a kid, later on other institutions. I remember one summer, I was in college, and devotedly spent the holidays at home: “I’d really like to keep you here, locked up in the house, away from everybody else for a couple of years, so I could put your head straight.” That was a real threat. She’d never institutionalized me. I would have been out of her control, and then of course, she was afraid she would be blamed. “Freud” was an invective at our house. She hadn’t heard of the chemical imbalances yet. She would have loved it, would have made an awesome NAMI-mother. Or whatever the name of the German NAMI-equivalent. They’re everywhere. Well, and, madness? In our squeaky clean family?? No way! In fact, there was no need to institutionalize me, as I already was institutionalized – in my mother’s thorough narcissism.
The day after New Year, we had another argument. She had a stroke, and after ten days at the hospital, they asked me, if it were all right with me if they pulled the plug, since her chances were close to zero, and she’d be severely disabled, even if she made it. All right. She died that night.
The spooks of the past
I thought everything would change. It did. For a while. I dropped out of university, had a farm, a livery stable, for a few years, worked at a factory for two, as a riding instructor for four years, and then at a thoroughbred stud. I had a minor crisis about halfway during that period. I managed to prevent serious trouble by quitting my job, finding a new one, moving to another town. A new start. New people, a new name. Once more. I never stayed at the same place for long. Three years on average.
In October 2003 I went for three months to be a trainee at a riding school for Academic Riding, something I’d waited for for two years. The first month I had a great time. It was stressful, no doubt, working from early morning till late night, every day, training one’s own horse twice a day and taking care of the master’s horses.
Then suddenly something happened. I couldn’t stand the other trainee, a true chatterbox of a high school graduate who stuck like a leech, anymore. I tried to keep her at arm’s length, even got rude towards her a couple of times. So, during the second month I slowly slipped into that all too well-known unreal and trancelike state of both indifference towards my environment and irritation about it in as far as I couldn’t block it out. The third month the high school graduate leech had been replaced by someone a lot less sticky, which gave me room to catch my breath, and saved the stay for me to some extent. Still, I recall having dinner with everybody else, the master included, on X-mas Eve, and wondering why I couldn’t get the least excited about it. Here I was, spending X-mas Eve with among others the master himself, and I didn’t give a damn. Indeed, I felt misplaced, not really one of them, an onlooker.
Right after New Year I returned to the thoroughbred stud, with the best intentions to, at least, maintain what we’d learned, me and my horse, and a job offer in my pocket. The people who owned the place that housed the riding school wanted me to work for them. The master had recommended me. I accepted to start and work for them in October, after another season at the thoroughbred stud, right after the yearling sales.
At the thoroughbred stud, I had got a new colleague, a true chatterbox of a Lithuanian, who stuck like a leech… I managed to keep things going throughout April. At first, I couldn’t make myself go and train my horse anymore. I went straight to my room after work, listening to music, and writing, writing, writing. I had to.
It struck me one evening in May, like a bolt from the blue: I’d forgotten something. The most important. I’d forgotten to off myself. I panicked. I made a deal. “Give me a fortnight. I’ll have to clear up.” So I started to burn things. Tons of papers, photographs, stuff, got consumed by fire. I’ve never been more efficient, clearing up.
I reached a point where I neither slept nor ate. Constantly on edge, and indeed tense in my body so it hurt. Like being on fire inside. Once again, things intensified. This time a little more than at previous occasions. The echo in the back of my mind, seeing things, others didn’t see, thoughts speeding up at times, making it impossible to hold on to any of them, spacing out, getting paralyzed. The rabbit facing a snake-thing, yeah. My favorite. Actually not bad at all.
I’ve never been fond of the sound and sight of civilisation, of noisy machinery, doors getting slammed, the vac, a phone ringing, flashing lights, sudden movements, you name it. This time it became unbearable. Hearing the water running in the pipes, footsteps somewhere in the house, voices, it could drive me up the wall.
What also intensified was the need to talk to someone about what was going on. Now, I wasn’t twenty years old any longer, I’d read my psychology and stuff, and, if not to the same extent but still, I had experienced this before. I knew instinctively that I had to figure out what made it happen, or it would just happen again and again, eventually putting me completely out of control. And, yeah, it’s through communication that we come to an understanding of ourselves and the world, isn’t it? Since I had no close friends living nearby at the time, I decided, though somewhat reluctantly, to give the professionals another shot. If they messed up, I could always off myself. And since I certainly didn’t feel the least “crazy” or “mentally ill” or anything along those lines, just felt an urgent need to talk to someone who’d listen, I eventually brought myself to call a psychologist, a professional listener, and get an appointment.
A very busy woman. I had to wait for five weeks – or try someone else. But I’d smelled no rat. At least none of significant size. So I waited. The strange thing was that the day after I’d made the phone call, I woke up in the morning, and the whole circus had stopped. Just like that. So, for several days I contemplated to cancel the appointment. False alarm. No need for it anyway. But, hey, it had happened before, right? Yeah, right. Too many times. What if it happened again? The minute, I decided not to cancel, the circus started again. Wham. Just like that.
Being born on a Sunday means luck. And lucky I was. Incredibly lucky, in hindsight. Of course, I got badgered to go and see, at first, my GP. “To get something”. First session. Talk about jumping to conclusions. I politely refused the offer. I wasn’t looking for “the easy way out” as I put it. The refusal was instantly accepted. The third session it wasn’t my GP anymore, but a shrink, “to get something”. It had dawned on her, that I wasn’t “depressed”. I actually witnessed it dawn on her. Although she made a very professional effort. “Millions of pieces,” it slipped out of her, after she’d read what I’d written up to that session.
Yeah, I wrote. I wrote at home, and took it along. We’d agreed on that at the first session, since I, well, simply wasn’t able to talk. Not about anything beyond the weather. But I could write. As long as no one was watching, and except for a few certain words, which, to my surprise, withstood any attempt to be put down on paper. The pen wouldn’t even get near the paper. “Mother” was one of those words.
Well, as mentioned, I’d read my psychology and stuff, so I knew what “millions of pieces” stood for. Still, it didn’t change my conviction that whatever the problem it was existential rather than medical. So, I refused to go see a shrink and “get something”. Whatever I’d read, it hadn’t been about any defective genes or Zyprexa-deficits. Indeed, one of the first things that came to mind was Joanne Greenberg’s I never promised You A Rose Garden, that I’d read as a teen, and that certainly isn’t about genes or chemical imbalances. Neither is Lacan, or Klein, or Winnicott, or Jung, or any of those guys.
Meanwhile, my refusal wasn’t immediately accepted. The badgering went on for several weeks. “I know, there are side effects, but all in all, it’s about quality of life. Think about that.” ‘Yeah, it’s about quality of life. That’s exactly why I won’t pop any of those pills!’ It was a tightrope walk, and it somehow pissed me off. That she wasn’t honest. That she thought, she could trick me. Going on and on about confidentiality, for instance. Confidentiality my ass! The only people to whom the principle of confidentiality applies without exception are Catholic priests. The confidentiality that applies to psychologists is one with exceptions. Confidentiality with exceptions is not confidentiality, it’s that simple.
Knowing about the relative nature of psychologists’ confidentiality, and my sixth sense for rats made trusting her have its limitations. Her office wasn’t as safe a place as it could have been. “Has anybody noticed?” “Nope.” Of course people had noticed. Luckily, they didn’t quite know what to make of it. I hated that. Having to lie just to keep myself safe.
Somewhat counterproductive. Indeed, an additional assault on the integrity of people, who haven’t got too much integrity in advance. Because their trust was betrayed again and again and again… But, well, this is what the system is designed to do, isn’t it? To accomplish the job one’s parents, society, weren’t able to accomplish properly, and break your spirit. Once and for all. So you never dare and try to protest the abuse again.
Another note to professionals: stop telling people bs about confidentiality. If for the sake of the “therapeutic alliance” you don’t want to tell them straight out that you have the power to get them committed involuntarily, you better don’t start tiring the subject at all. Everything else is a gross betrayal of trust (sic!). N.B.: With actually committing someone involuntarily being the ultimate betrayal of their trust. Just so you know.
Oh, and while I’m at it, what also pissed me off was the innocence feigning baby talk-bs in reply to my refusal to see a shrink and pop pills: “But I don’t understand. Why not?” Why not?! Well, I enlightened her eventually, three and a half years later. After I’d read everything I could get my hands on about psych drugs, “experts”, the whole business, and had found my suspicions, initially based on nothing much else but my sixth sense for rats, more than justified. “Psychiatry can be hazardous to your health.” Indeed, it more often than not is. Real paranoia.
A couple more items from the bs-list: “Uhm, do you maybe think, your, uhm, thinking is, uhm, a little, uhm, different from most people’s?” Read: “Do you agree that you’re nutz?”
All right. Let’s see what “most people’s” thinking looks like: “most people’s” thinking is responsible for wars, pollution, deforestation, child abuse, domestic violence, all kinds of exploitation, racism, social injustice, discrimination against women, the elderly, disabled people. It is responsible for things like Columbine and Virginia Tech to happen, just as it is responsible for the deaths of Torben Martin Bødker, Luise Hjerming Christensen, Julie Duelund Mortensen, David Stolper, Rebecca Riley, Matthew and Indiana, and Mikkel Dorph, just to name a few, and it is responsible for Auschwitz, T4, and MK Ultra. What a feat! I truly hope, my thinking is more than just a little different from “most people’s”!
But this wasn’t a question about being aware of all the above mentioned. This was about the indispensable insight – into being nutz. So, “I guess so,” I snarled back at her, while I, differently, thought: ‘Go to hell!’
To ask for “insight” is the same as to ask people to negate themselves. It is the same as to ask them to commit spiritual suicide, and it doesn’t surprise me the least that quite a few choose to commit actual suicide instead. An actual suicide still leaves their spirit intact.
“Millions of pieces” did two things for me: first, I realized why all my previous attempts at solving my problems had been in vain. I’d been overlooking something crucial all the time. In this one sense you might say I was “in denial”. I was sure, I’d escaped my mother’s terror regime in one piece, while I hadn’t. So, all my efforts had been based on a false assumption. However, it wasn’t the Greek term that clarified this for me. It was everything I knew the term to stand for in a psychological, sociological, philosophical, spiritual and existential context. Without this knowledge, the term, the label, alone would have done nothing to help me understand. So, when people today tell me the label they were given alone helped them to understand themselves – sorry, I don’t buy it. “I see, I’m schizophrenic”? Nah, I don’t think so.
Second, it took the heavy burden of being responsible for myself from my shoulders. I could act just as crazy as I wanted, I wouldn’t be to blame. ‘Yeah!’ I thought. ‘Yeah?! Wait a minute… This means, nothing I say or do is of any value anymore… I’m not worth being listened to and taken seriously… What?! But this is exactly what my mother did! Declare me null and void. And now this frigging therapist wants to do the same to me one more time?!’ Yup. With the professional’s authority. Devastating.
Sad having to say this, but as far as I am concerned, it colored the relationship from one end to the other. I never felt fully respected, fully accepted, fully understood because of this. Because she never stopped referring to me as a “patient”, although I asked her to, because of the rarely ever directly but nevertheless occurring pathologizing of me. Another double bind. While the “I didn’t always get you” paradoxically enough made me feel accepted, respected and understood. Because it was honest.
Sad, too, to think that most people probably never notice, swallow it hook, line and sinker. And then the CBT-part comes in handy. At least, it then can train them to live as “patient”-slaves with a “mental illness”.
“You know, some people come here for some time, and then they move on and do on their own. Others come here for some time, then do on their own for a while, and then come here again, every now and then.” ‘Ah, I see. What you’re trying to bring down to me here is that I shouldn’t count on ever being able to do all on my own. Well, maybe you don’t, but I sure do know of people who have done and do all on their own. And so I intend to, in time!’ The “it’s a chronic illness, a lifelong burden”-bs, exactly.
The bs-list is long. I’ll probably further specify it in-depth one fine day. All in all, it burns down to a number of attempts to define me, instead of leaving that job entirely to me myself. From an overall perspective, CBT here has an advantage, because its technique emphasizes asking questions instead of re-interpreting to provide a fresh angle on any given subject. However, questions, too, can be leading, and thus interpretations, definitions, answers, in themselves.
A third note to professionals: Neither the best imaginable training nor the longest imaginable professional experience does entitle anyone to answer another person’s questions about their being in this world. Only the person him-/herself is qualified to answer these questions. If you think, your training and professional experience allows you to impose your own answers to their questions on your clients, that makes you a rat-trainer, not a therapist. Stay away from people in crisis, and go find yourself a job at a circus! It’s where you belong. But frankly, even circus-trainers often have more respect and empathy for the animals they’re working with, than many therapists have for their clientele. I know. I’ve worked at a circus, in fact seen some of the world’s best trainers at work.
My own choice
So then, what was helpful? First and foremost, my rebelliousness, stubbornness and resilience. “You’re pretty much an existentialist, aren’t you?” Pretty much through and through, yeah. Choice, self-determination, responsibility, free will, freedom… It’s all about feedom.
Helpful was the part that supported me in my decision to venture on the journey through madness. The part that didn’t try to stop me, but allowed, even asked me to take responsibility for myself. “What do you think, is it you doing all this, or is it just happening to you?” The part that accepted that I deliberately exposed myself to “symptoms”. It were the “symptoms” themselves that were unmistakable signposts on the journey. I read Bateson at some point. “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia”. The classic example of a double bind situation: the mother who asks her kid to come and give her a hug, while all her body language signalizes is fear of the kid. And then the denial, the Don’t: “No no! You’ve got it all wrong! Of course mommy loves you. How can you think otherwise?!” I had no conscious memory, but my unconscious remembered, and it let me know. Unmistakably.
Helpful was to consciously listen to my unconscious to make what it had to say conscious. Helpful was to have all the fear and anger and confusion recognized and acknowledged as valid reactions to what life had had in store for me.
A fourth note to professionals: ask yourself whether you’re ready to be someone else’s punch bag, and to say yes to whatever you’re confronted with, whether you have the self-awareness and fearlessness to recognize and acknowledge your own darkest shadow side when you face it in the meeting with someone else’s. Every time you’re not will make things worse, not better, also for you yourself.
Helpful was also my curiosity, that had me investigate in detail what exactly it was I’d missed out on when my therapist decided to take the risk and not have me committed to a psych prison, and to, eventually, accept my no to psych drugs. It was good training in regard to concentration and cognition. It hadn’t bothered me much, when I’d first noticed that adding up two and two had become an insolvable mathematical problem. I didn’t care much when I noticed that I couldn’t concentrate on a simple thing like an ad for cheese or bananas. Who cares anyway? I despaired when I noticed that I made spelling mistakes and messed up sentence structure, omitting words, writing other words than those I’d intended to write, etc., and that it took me ten or more attempts to get it somewhat right. One more item on the bs-list: why didn’t my therapist tell me that it was temporary, that it would pass in time?! I’m a perfectionist, and words are sort of sacred to me.
Helpful was to connect with others who’d had the experience, and who saw it in a similar way as I did. It was – and still is – at least as helpful as therapy was. It opened my eyes to the spiritual dimension, which therapy, especially those kinds of therapy that are founded on a Freudian or, even worse, biological view of crisis as an individual defect, as an illness, usually doesn’t deal with.
Helpful was to have my experiences “normalized”: “Did you know that a lot of people actually hear voices?” It opened my eyes to the fact that everything, absolutely everything, I experienced was just sort of an “exaggerated normality”.
Before I started to write this not a recovery story, I had my doubts: ‘Why would I want to write this? I’ve written it before, this and everything else. It’s just another life story, like all the others. Nothing really new about it. The usual misery. Marian’s version of it. Why not leave it be? Why not simply let go of it? It’s really not so interesting.’
I quit therapy in December 2007. I felt, I’d finally found an identity, and a language of my own. And that’s maybe all therapy can do. At least it was all I felt my therapist could do for me. It’s fine, and for some it seems to end there. Making sense of one’s own past, and let go of it.
Meanwhile, the let-go-of-it-part turned out to be a little more challenging than expected. While therapy from an overall perspective clearly was liberating, there also were the lesser beneficial, actually in part retraumatizing, aspects I’ve mentioned some of above, and whose repercussions I still every now and then am at odds with. Especially while trying to do some activism which includes regular confrontations with mainstream opinions. There’s still some anger, some fear, some confusion, that didn’t get resolved, but actually doubled up in therapy. “Tell me, if ever I remind you of your mother!” I did. Was it heard? Unfortunately not always.
An Identity and a language of one’s own. Mission accomplished. Mission accomplished? What about the essence of crisis then? What about the fundamental truths I had so strongly felt were inherent in the experience, too? Is it any better to say: “I am this person, this is my story,” than to say: “I am schizophrenic”? Isn’t it still a prison, the story, the identity? A false ego-identification, a false self? Well, at least the story is true. It happened. “Schizophrenic” is not. It doesn’t exist. A term without contents, without meaning. An empty shell. Another void.
There’s a lot of talk about the importance of “ego-strengthening therapy”. Usually, it is the “I am mentally ill”-ego, this kind of therapy is meant to strengthen. Then, you can go out in the world, and say “I’m mentally ill/schizophrenic/bipolar, (or whatever else from the DSM),” whenever asked about who you are. You don’t have to stand and look stupid anymore, because you don’t actually have a clue who or what you are.
It’s a trap, though. A dead end. Trapped in an eternal loop of meaninglessness reinforcing meaninglessness: “I’m mentally ill because I’m mentally ill because I’m mentally ill…”. You can only let go of something you know what is. You can let go of a meaningful, understandable past. Not of a meaningless, incomprehensible concept like “mental illness”.
But even if it’s the “this is my story”-identification that gets strengthened, it’s not the end of the way. It’s the beginning. ” ‘…I’m not back to where I was before,’ ” I quoted myself in my last letter to my therapist. “And I’m not, no. Fortunately not! ‘Before’ used to be either frozen, timeless standstill or incomprehensible chaos, going round and round in circles without getting anywhere.” So, yeah, here I am, at the very beginning. The whole long way still ahead of me. Still a suffering human being, not enlightened. But I think, no, I know, that, since I’m suffering somewhat more consciously now, the unconscious suffering that gets labelled “psychotic” or “schizophrenic” is very unlikely to ever happen to me again, unless I let it. It’s my choice.
“Reclaiming our lives, our stories, our power,” the slogan goes. I didn’t reclaim because there wasn’t much to reclaim. Just as I didn’t recover, any “normal position or condition, as of health”, because I’d never been, neither here nor there, neither in this nor that condition. An empty shell, and a grain of seasand. I rather claimed and discovered. And it seems, I’m not yet done with claiming and discovering, or I wouldn’t have had much to say here.